Translated from French by Alison Anderson
A shiver of hope went through them when they first saw Olga.
To be sure, she did not seem particularly kind. Tall, dry, with a prominent jawbone, jutting elbows, and sallow skin,when she first came in she did not look at a single woman in the ward. She sat down on the wobbly bunk she’d been assigned, put away her belongings at the bottom of the wooden chest, listened to the guard, shouting the rules at her as if the latter were braying Morse code, did not turn her head until she was informed of the location of the washroom and then, once the guard had left, she stretched out on her back, cracked her knuckles, and gave herself over to the contemplation of the blackened planks on the ceiling.
“Have you seen her hair?” murmured Tatyana.
The prisoners did not understand what Tatyana meant by that. The newcomer had a thick mane of hair—frizzy, robust, coarse, which doubled the volume of her head. Such health and vigor—the sort of thing you usually only saw on the head of an African woman. But Olga, despite her olive skin, did not look remotely African, and must have come from somewhere in the Soviet Union, since here she was now in Siberia, in this women’s camp where the regime punished those who did not think in the orthodox fashion.
“What about her hair, then?”
“I think she’s from the Caucasus.”
“You’re right. Their women often have straw-like hair.”
“Yes, horrible hair, isn’t it.”
“Not at all! It’s magnificent! With my flat, fine hair, I could only dream of having hair like that.”
“I’d rather die. It looks like horsehair.”
Giggling, quickly stifled, accompanied Lily’s last remark.
Tatyana frowned and silenced the group by pointing out: “Her hair might offer us the solution.”
Eager to please Tatyana, whom they treated as their leader even though she was just an ordinary prisoner like the others, they tried to concentrate on what they had failed to grasp: how could a stranger’s hair offer any solution to the lives they were leading—that of political deviants being forcibly re-educated?
That night a thick snowfall had buried the camp. Outside, everything was dark except for the lantern that the storm was trying to extinguish. The temperature, well below zero, did not help them to concentrate.
“Do you mean . . .”
“Yes. I mean you can hide quite a few things in a head of hair like that.”
They observed a moment of respectful silence. One of them finally guessed: “With her she has brought a . . .”
Lily, a gentle blonde woman who, despite the climate, the rigors of work, and the deplorable food,was still as round as any kept woman, now voiced a certain skepticism.
“Well, she’ll have to have thought of it first.”
“Why would she not have?”
“Well I certainly wouldn’t have thought of it before coming here.”
“And I’m referring to her, not to you.”
Well aware that Tatyana would always have the final word, Lily refrained from voicing her annoyance, and went back to sewing the hem of her woolen skirt.
They listened to the icy howling of the storm.
Leaving her companions behind, Tatyana went down the row, approached the foot of the newcomer’s bed, and stood there for a while, waiting for a sign that would indicate she had been noticed.
A feeble flame was dying in the stove.
After a few minutes, during which she obtained no reaction, Tatyana resolved to break the silence: “What’s your name?”
A deep voice answered, “Olga.” Her lips had not moved.
“And why are you here?”
No reaction on Olga’s face.A mask of wax.
“I expect, like all of us, you were Stalin’s preferred fiancée and he got bored with you?”
She thought she was saying something funny, an almost ritual witticism that greeted all the opponents to the Stalinist regime; her words slid over the stranger like a pebble over ice.
“My name’s Tatyana. Would you like me to introduce the others?”
“There’ll be time enough for that, no?”
“There certainly will . . . we’ll be in this hole for months, or years . . . we might even die here.”
“So we have time.”
To conclude, Olga closed her eyes and turned to face the wall, leaving only her angular shoulders to carry on the conversation.
Realizing she would get nothing more out of her, Tatyana went back to join the others.
“A tough nut. Which is reassuring. There’s a chance that . . .”
Nodding approvingly, even Lily, they decided to wait.
In the week that followed, the newcomer offered up no more than a sentence a day, and even that had to be forced out of her. Such behavior seemed to validate the hopes of the oldest prisoners.
“I’m sure she’s thought about it,” said Lily eventually,more convinced with each passing hour. “She is definitely the type who would think about it.”
The day brought little light. The fog forced its grayness upon it, and when it lifted, an impenetrable screen of oppressive clouds weighed upon the camp, like an army of sentinels.
As no one had been able to inspire Olga’s trust, the women counted on the shower to show them whether the newcomer was hiding a . . . But it was so cold that no one attempted, anymore, to get undressed; so impossible would it be to get dry and warm after such an undertaking that everyone resorted to a furtive, minimal scrub. One rainy morning they discovered, moreover, that Olga’s mane was so thick that the drops slid over it without adhering; her hair was waterproof.
“Never mind,” ventured Tatyana,“we’ll have to take the risk.”
“Of asking her?”
“No. Of showing her.”
“And what if she’s a spy? What if she’s been sent here to trap us?”
“She’s not the type,” said Tatyana.
“No, she’s not the type at all,” confirmed Lily, pulling on a thread in her sewing.
“Yes she is the type! She’s playing silent, tough, unfriendly, the sort who won’t get close to anyone: isn’t that the very best way to make us trust her?”
It was Irina who was vociferating in this manner, surprising the other women, surprising her own self, stupefied by the coherence of her reasoning. Astonished, she went on: “I can just imagine that if someone entrusted me with spying on a hut full of women, there would be no better way to go about it. Pass myself off as the quiet, solitary sort and, over time, gain the others’ trust. That’s cleverer than acting friendly, no? We may have been infiltrated by the biggest tattletale in the Soviet Union.”
Lily was suddenly so convinced of this that she rammed her needle into the thick of her finger. A drop of blood formed, and she looked at it, terrified.
“I want to be moved into another hut, quick!”
“I understand your reasoning, Irina, but that’s all it is, reasoning. As for me, my intuition tells me the opposite. We can trust her, she’s like us. Or even harder than we are.”
“Let’s wait. Because if we are caught . . .”
“Yes, you’re right. Let’s wait. And above all, let’s try to push her to the breaking point. Let’s stop talking to her. If she’s a spy who’s been planted here to inform on us, she’ll panic and try to get closer to us. With every step she takes she’ll reveal her strategy.”
“Good point,” confirmed Irina. “Let’s ignore her and see how she reacts.”
“It’s dreadful . . .” sighed Lily, licking her finger to speed the scarring.
For ten days, not one prisoner in Ward 13 said a word to Olga.At first she didn’t seem to notice and then, once she was aware of it, her gaze grew harder, almost mineral; and yet she did not make the slightest gesture to break the wall of silence. She accepted her isolation.
After they had had their soup, the women gathered around Tatyana.
“There’s our proof, no? She didn’t crack.”
“Yes, it’s terrifying.”
“Oh, Lily, everything terrifies you.”
“You have to admit it’s a nightmare: to be rejected by the group, then realize, and not lift a finger to prevent such exclusion! It’s hardly human . . . I wonder if that Olga has a heart.”
“Who’s to say she isn’t suffering?”
Lily put down her sewing, her needle stuck through the thick fold of cloth; she hadn’t thought of this. Her eyes immediately filled with tears.
“Have we made her unhappy?”
“I think she was unhappy when she got here and she’s even unhappier now.”
“Poor woman! And it’s our fault . . .”
“I think, above all, that we can count on her.”
“Yes, you’re right,” exclaimed Lily, drying her tears with her sleeve.“Let’s confide in her now, quickly. It hurts me too much to think that she’s just a prisoner like the rest of us and we’re making her troubles worse by making life impossible for her.”
After a few minutes of consultation, the women decided they would risk unveiling their plan, and Tatyana would take the initiative.
After that, the camp lapsed again into its drowsiness; outside, the frost was extreme; a few furtive squirrels scrabbled across the snow among the huts.
With her left hand Olga was crumbling an old crust of bread; with the other she was holding her empty dish.
Tatyana came over.
“Did you know that you’re allowed a pack of cigarettes every two days?”
“Has it occurred to you that I have noticed and that I’ve been smoking?”
Olga’s words had sprung from her mouth sharply, precipitously; the sudden cessation of a week of silence accelerated her elocution.
Tatyana noticed that despite her aggressive tone, Olga had spoken more than usual. She must be missing human contact . . . so Tatyana reckoned it was all right to continue.
“Since you notice everything, you will have seen no doubt that none of us smokes. Or that we only smoke now and again when the guards are around.”
“Uh . . . yes. No.What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you wondered what we use our cigarettes for?”
“Oh, I see; you swap them. You use them for cash in the camp. You want to sell me some? I don’t have anything to pay with . . .”
“So if you don’t pay with money, what do you pay with?”
Olga looked at Tatyana with a suspicious scowl, as if she knew ahead of time that whatever she was about to discover would disgust her. So Tatyana took her time to reply: “We don’t sell our cigarettes, we don’t swap them either. We use them for something other than smoking.”
Because she sensed she had piqued Olga’s curiosity, Tatyana broke off the discussion, well aware that she would have a stronger case if the other woman had to come back to her to find out the rest.
That very evening, Olga went over to Tatyana and looked at her for a long time, as if to ask her to break the silence. In vain. Tatyana repaid her in kind for the first evening.
Olga eventually capitulated: “Right, what do you do with the cigarettes?”
Tatyana turned to her with a searching look.
“Did you leave people you love behind?”
Olga’s only reply was a fleeting, pained expression.
“So did we,” continued Tatyana, “we miss our men, but why should we be more worried for their sake than for our own? They’re in another camp. No, what really hurts, is the children . . .”
Tatyana’s voice faltered: the image of her two daughters had just pricked her conscience. Out of compassion, Olga placed her hand on Tatyana’s shoulder: a sturdy, powerful hand, not unlike a man’s.
“I understand, Tatyana. I have also left a daughter behind. Fortunately, she’s twenty-one.”
“My girls are eight and ten . . .”
It took all her remaining strength to keep from crying. Besides, what more was there to add?
Brusquely, Olga pulled Tatyana against her shoulder and Tatyana—tough Tatyana, the network leader, the eternal rebel—because she had found someone tougher than herself, wept for a moment against a stranger’s chest.
Safely unburdened of her surfeit emotion, she picked up the thread of her thoughts.
“This is what we use the cigarettes for: we empty out the tobacco, and we keep the papers. Afterwards, by gluing the papers together, we can make a real sheet of paper. Here, come with me, I’ll show you.”
Tatyana lifted up a floor board and from a hiding place full of potatoes she removed a crackling pile of cigarette papers, where each joint, each glued crease thickened the delicate tissues, as if they were some millennial papyrus discovered in Siberia through some aberration of archeology.
She placed the sheets carefully on Olga’s knees.
“There. One of us is bound to get out of here someday . . . and she’ll take our messages with her.”
“But you may have noticed, there’s a problem.”
“Yes, I can see that the pages are blank.”
“Yes, blank on both sides. Because we don’t have a pen or ink. I tried to write with my own blood, I stole a pin from Lily, but it fades too quickly . . .And besides, I don’t scar well. Something to do with my platelets. Malnutrition. I don’t want to go to the infirmary, it might make them suspicious.”
“Why are you telling me this? What does it have to do with me?”
“Well, I suppose that you too would like to write to your daughter?”
Olga allows a full minute of thickening silence to go by then says, gruffly, “Yes.”
“So here’s what we’ll do: we’ll provide you with the paper, and you get us the pencil.”
“Now why would you think I have a pencil? That’s the first thing they take off us when they arrest us. And we were all searched several times over before coming here.”
“Your hair . . .”
Tatyana pointed to the thick halo of hair surrounding Olga’s stern face. And went on staring at her.
“When I first saw you, I thought that . . .”
Olga interrupted her with her hand and, for the first time, she smiled.
“You are correct.”
As Tatyana’s eyes filled with wonder, Olga slipped her hand behind her ear, dug about in her curls and then, her eyes shining, she pulled out a narrow pencil and handed it to her fellow prisoner.
“It’s a deal.”
It is no easy thing to measure the joy that warmed the women’s hearts during the days which followed. Through that little pencil lead they had once again found their hearts, their ties with the world from before, a way to embrace their children.
Captivity no longer seemed as arduous. Nor did guilt. For some of them did feel terrible remorse for the fact that they had put their political activities before their family life; now that they had been shipped off to the depths of the gulag, leaving their children at the mercy of a society they had despised and fought against, they could not help but regret their militancy and suspect that they had failed in their duty, and thus proven themselves to be bad mothers. Would it not have been better to simply keep quiet, like so many other Soviet women, and immerse themselves in domestic values? To save their own skins, and the skins of their loved ones, rather than to struggle to save everyone’s?
While each of the prisoners had several sheets of paper, there was only one pencil. So after several meetings they agreed that each woman would have the right to three full sheets before all of them were bound together in a stitched notebook which would be smuggled out at the first opportunity.
The second rule: each woman must write her pages without making any mistakes, in order not to waste the pencil lead.
While their decision was greeted with general enthusiasm that evening, the days that followed were more troublesome. Confronted with the obligation to concentrate all their thoughts onto three small sheets, each woman struggled: how to put together three essential pages, three testamentary pages that would imprint the essence of a life, that would pass on to their children their souls and their values, and convey for all eternity the significance of their time on earth?
The undertaking became a torture. Every evening sobs could be heard from the bunks. Some of the women lost sleep over it; others moaned in their dreams.
The moment they could seize a break in their forced labor, they would try to exchange their ideas.
“I’m going to tell my daughter why I am here and not with her. So that she’ll understand, and maybe she’ll forgive me.”
“Three pages of guilty conscience to give yourself a clear conscience—do you really think that’s a good idea?”
“I want to tell my daughter how I met her father, so that she’ll know that she was born because of the love between us.”
“Oh yes? And what if all she really cares about is finding out why you didn’t stick around to love her.”
“I want to tell my three daughters about their birth, because each of their births was the most beautiful moment in my life.”
“That’s a bit short, no? You don’t think they’ll be sorry you restricted your memories to their arrival on the scene? You’d do better to talk about what came afterwards.”
“I want to tell them what I would like to do for them.”
In the course of their discussions, they uncovered a singular detail: all of them had given birth to daughters. The coincidence amused them, then surprised them, to such a degree that they came to wonder whether the decision to incarcerate all the mothers of daughters together in Ward 13 had not been deliberate on the part of the authorities.
But this diversion did not bring an end to their ordeal: what should they write?
Every evening Olga would wave the pencil and call out, “Who wants to begin?”
Every evening a diffuse silence would settle over the women. Time passed, perceptibly, like stalactites dripping from the ceiling of a cave. The women, heads down, waited for one of them to shout, “Me!” and to deliver them temporarily from their troubles but, after a few coughs and furtive glances, the most courageous would eventually say that they were still thinking.
“I’ve nearly got it . . . tomorrow perhaps.”
“Yes,me too, I’m getting there, but I’m not quite sure . . .”
The days went by, whirling with snow flurries, crisp with immaculate frost. Although the prisoners had waited two years for the pencil, three months had already gone by and not one of them asked for the pencil or even accepted it.
So imagine their surprise when one Sunday, after Olga had lifted up the object and uttered the ritual words, Lily answered eagerly, “I’ll have it, thanks.”
They turned around, stunned, to look at plump, blonde Lily, the most scatterbrained of them all, the most sentimental, the least headstrong—in short: the most normal. If someone had tried to forecast who among the prisoners would be first to start writing her three pages, Lily would surely have been placed among the stragglers. First would be Tatyana, or perhaps Olga, or even Irina—but sweet, ordinary Lily?
Tatyana could not help but stammer, “Lily . . . are you sure?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“You’re not going to . . . scribble,make a mistake . . .well,wear down the pencil?”
“No, I’ve had a good think: I’ll manage without any mistakes.”
Skeptical,Olga handed Lily the pencil.As she was giving it to her, she exchanged glances with Tatyana, who seemed to confirm that they were surelye committing a blunder.
On the days that followed, the women in Ward 13 stared at Lily every time she would go off on her own to write, sitting on the floor, alternating inspiration—eyes raised to the ceiling—and expiration, her shoulders curved to hide the marks she was making on the paper from the others.
On Wednesday she announced, satisfied, “I’ve finished.Who wants the pencil?”
A gloomy silence met her question.
“Who wants the pencil?”
Not a single woman dared look at another. Lily concluded, calmly, “Right, then I’ll put it back in Olga’s hair until tomorrow.”
Olga merely grunted when Lily hid the object deep in her curls.
Anyone other than Lily—not as good, more aware of the complexities of the human heart—might have noticed that the women in the ward were now training jealous gazes upon her, perhaps even a bit of hatred. How had Lily, who really was close to being a moron, managed to succeed where the others had failed?
A week went by, and every evening was another opportunity for the women to relive their defeat.
Finally, the following Wednesday at midnight, when the sound of breathing indicated that most of the women were fast asleep, Tatyana, tired of tossing and turning in her bunk, dragged herself silently over to Lily’s bunk.
Lily smiled at her, gazing up at the dark ceiling.
“Lily, I beg you, can you tell me what you wrote?”
“Of course, Tatyana, would you like to read it?”
How would she manage? It was after curfew.
Tatyana huddled at the window. Beyond a spider’s web was a field of pure snow, made blue by moonlight; if she twisted her neck, Tatyana could just make out the three small pages.
Lily drew near and asked, her tone that of a little girl who has done something naughty, “Well, what do you think?”
“Lily, you’re a genius.”
And Tatyana took Lily in her arms to kiss her several times over on her plump cheeks.
The next morning Tatyana asked two favors of Lily: permission to follow her example, and permission to share it with the other women.
Lily lowered her lashes, blushed as if she’d just been offered a bouquet of flowers, and chirped a few words which—though garbled, a sort of cooing in her throat— meant yes.
Moscow, December 2005.
Fifty years have passed since these events took place.
The man who is writing these lines is visiting Russia. The Soviet regime has fallen, and there are no more camps—although this in no way means that injustice is a thing of the past.
In the salons of the embassy of France I meet the artists who for years now have been putting on my plays.
Among them is a woman in her sixties who seizes my arm with a sort of affectionate familiarity, a mixture of brazenness and respect. Her smile glows with kindness. It is impossible to resist the mauve of her eyes . . . I follow her over to the window of the palace, with its view over the lights of Moscow.
“Would you like me to show you the most beautiful book in the world?”
“And here I was clinging to hopes I’d written it myself, and you tell me I’m too late.What a blow! Are you sure of this? The most beautiful book in the world?”
“Yes. Other people might write beautiful books, but this one is the most beautiful.”
We sit down on one of those oversized, worn sofas that must adorn the grand salons of embassies the world over.
She tells me about her mother, Lily, who spent several years in the gulag, and then about the women who shared that time with her, and finally the story of the book, just as I have related it above.
“I’m the one who owns the notebook. Because my mother was the first one to leave ward 13, she managed to sneak it out, sewn in her skirts. Mother has died, the others too. However, the daughters of the imprisoned comrades come to look at it from time to time: we have tea together and talk about our mothers, and then we read through it again. They’ve entrusted me with the task of looking after it.When I won’t be here anymore, I don’t know where it will go.Will a museum to take it? I wonder. And yet it is the most beautiful book in the world. The book of our mothers.”
She positions her face beneath my own, as if she were going to kiss me, and winks at me.
“Would you like to see it?”
We make an appointment.
The next day, I climb the enormous stairway leading to the apartment she shares with her sister and two cousins.
In the middle of the table, amidst the tea and the sugar cookies, the book is waiting, a notebook of fragile sheets which the decades have left more brittle than ever.
My hostesses settle me into a worn armchair, and I begin to read the most beautiful book in the world, written by those who fought for freedom, rebels whom Stalin considered dangerous, the resistance fighters of ward 13, each of whom had written three sheets to her daughter, fearful that she might never see her again.
On every page there was a recipe.
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, playwright, novelist and author
of short stories, was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Théâtre in 2001. His books include Oscar and the Lady in Pink, The Gospel according to Pilate, and My life with Mozart. The film Odette Toulemonde, Schmitt’s debut as screenwriter and director,was released in 2007.
In addition to The Most Beautiful Book in the World: 8 Novellas, Alison Anderson has translated from French Sélim Nassib’s novels, I Loved You for Your Voice and The Palestinian Lover; Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée, and Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog.